As mentioned recently, I have been scratching my head over the thorny issue of processed foods. How bad is bad? What should I be looking out for? And then I found a book: Swallow This, by Joanna Blythman; a book that serves up “the food industry’s darkest secrets”. Maybe this held the answers…
I want to start by saying this: I think that people should read this book. It is interesting, and illuminating, and the fact that I am going to spend the next 1600 words picking holes in it does not change that. I am going to gripe and moan not because it is a bad book, but because it is not the book that I hoped it would be. And you could argue that that is more my problem than the book’s, and I would be hard-pressed to disagree. But it’s my blog, so tough.
Why should I read this book?
Because it will tell you all sorts of things that you don’t know. Things that you really ought to know. It will lay to rest any notion that the processed food industry is a scaled-up version of what you or I do in our kitchens. Picture, if you will, the factory that makes pre-packaged pies. In your mind, is it some sort of Wallace and Gromit-alike funland, full of over-sized versions of your saucepans and ovens? Does a giant mechanical rolling pin roll out industrial-sized pieces of pastry, while a robotic arm peels swedes and carrots, ready for the giant pot? The truth, as this book explains, is that this is a very long way away from what processed food factories are actually like.
And irrespective of whether that is a good or a bad thing (more on that a little further on), it is, at the very least, something that we all ought to know. Read this book if only to understand how processed food is made.
So what’s your gripe then?
My problem with this book is this: having explained what processed food actually is, what I really wanted the book to go on to do was to explain how bad a problem this was for us. And on the surface this is what it purports to do, but if you dig a little deeper then it is a muddier picture. I finished the book more frustrated than enlightened.
The problem that the book faces is that once you understand a little more about the way processed food is put together, you quickly come to the conclusion that it’s all a bit, well, weird. There are all sorts of complicated processes that go into making processed food, which bear scant resemblance to anything that you or I would call cooking. This is, in fact, a much-commented upon point within the book. But – and it’s a big but – just because it sounds weird and I don’t really understand what’s going on, it doesn’t automatically make it bad. It’s just weird.
Most of the things that go on around me every day are a bit strange and I don’t really understand them. You could argue that perpetual confusion is my normal state of being. But Swallow This has an overriding agenda: if it sounds weird and your grandmother wouldn’t have done it in her kitchen, then it’s bad and dangerous and we shouldn’t stand for it. I should have had an inkling that this wasn’t going to be a completely sober meditation on the processed food industry when I saw the book’s cover.
Yep, that’s a skull. Made out of toast.
But the weird stuff can’t be good for us, right?
This is where the book falls down, for me. Some chapters are filled to the brim with convincing evidence for just how life-shorteningly bad some aspects of processed food are for you. For example, sugar (and all its alternatives) are exposed in chapter 6 as being (a) all over the processed food industry like a rash and (b) doing a pretty good job of killing us in surprisingly large numbers. Another example: chapter 7 explains how cooking oil – whether used at home in small quantities, or on an industrial-scale – breaks down when heated to create unwelcome byproducts that have been linked with cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Read the book for these chapters and then steer clear of these health hazards as best you can.
But that level of clarity is missing from other chapters, which present statements as facts and create an impression of causal links that do not seem to be backed-up with anything concrete. I’m not an expert, that’s why I’m reading the book, so I want it to tell me the facts. Telling me that my ready-meal “contained an amino acid… L-cysteine E910” that “can be derived from animal and human hair” isn’t really very helpful. True, it is explained that it “has been an extremely useful additive for food manufacturers”, but it does not tell me whether those manufacturers are actually making it from human hair or, even if they were, whether that poses any sort of problem. Okay, it’s weird, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for us.
Those kinds of loosely-formed statements contribute to the picture of a Frankenstein industry using nefarious practices in the creation of our food. But reading the above section objectively, I conclude that there is nothing immediately deleterious to health in L-cysteine E910. If there is, then tell me what the problem is. If not, why mention it? It just confuses what are, in other chapters of the book, very clear messages about the truly harmful components of processed food.
I bet you love all of that science malarkey?
I do. I think that the fact that we can do half the things that the book talks about is really interesting. The question is always this: just because we can do it, should we do it?
The answer is that it really depends on why we need to do it. The book mentions, in the introduction, that the “average proportion of household income spent on food has dropped from 50 percent in 1914 to around 10 percent in 2014”. The cost of food is a bigger issue than this post has space for, but needless to say that one contributing factor in the rise of the processed food industry (and, therefore, the scientific and industrial innovations that are being scrutinised in Swallow This) is our demand, as consumers, for cheaper food.
At the same time, my view – and surely it is one that is not too controversial – is that we absolutely shouldn’t be doing these things when there is a proven concern over safety. This is, after all, food that we are talking about.
Swallow This seems to take a slightly different approach, and that might be another reason why I cannot wholly recommend it. It seems to say that, if it’s time-honoured and traditional then everything’s fine. But if it is, instead, in any way the product of some clever people doing some clever things that the rest of us don’t understand then, no, it is absolutely not fine. Which is missing the point. The point is, surely, what I mentioned a moment ago: that if it is unsafe then it is very much not okay. It shouldn’t matter whether it is a technique that is cutting-edge or something that your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother used to use.
Otherwise, you end up with some confused conclusions:
- Preserving fruit in a substance that is potentially harmful to health, which also affects the fruit’s nutritional benefit, is bad (page 228)
- Mixing fruit and sugar together to make a jam is fine (pages 91 and 235)¹
- Washing food in vinegar is weird and wrong (page 233)
- Pickling is fine (page 235)²
I feel petty and cheap pointing out these slightly inconsequential contradictions, but they contribute to the general air of confusion that the book generates. It would be really neat to conclude that our “venerable preservation techniques” are all great and that the processed food industry’s techniques are all bad. It would certainly make life easier; but the picture does not appear to be quite that simple.
So remind me again why I should read this book…
Because, when all is said and done, we need to know how the processed food industry works. Whether my fruit is preserved in eatFresh-FC or in a whole heap of sugar, I need to know that that is what someone has done to my food. I had a reasonable idea about what goes into jam; I had no idea about what goes in to other processed foods. Knowing these things, I can then decide whether I want to eat the coated fruit or the jam, or both, or neither.
And my answer, on the whole, is ‘probably neither’. Whatever its limitations, there is enough convincing information in this book to make me think very hard before I opt for processed food again.
So that’s cleared that up then…
Apart from one thing. Unless you have a very restricted diet, you cannot avoid processed food entirely. And my own conclusion, if not the one found in Swallow This, is that some processing techniques sound as though they are okay. So I am not swearing off of processed foods altogether; rather, I am aiming to select those foods that sit at the acceptable end of the processed food spectrum.
Now all I need to do is to find a book that tells me what those are…
¹ A quick Google search suggests that making fruit into jam doesn’t necessarily remove 100% of the nutrients that were present in the original raw fruit, but you’re going to be scraping the inside of the jam jar to build a strong case that preserving fruit in a shed load of sugar is a particularly health-conscious thing to do. Especially when the book dedicates a whole chapter to the, seemingly well-supported, idea that sugar is killing us.
² To my mind, neither of these things are bad; they’re both just a bit odd when you think about it. I just cannot reason why one is bad and one is not.